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Liberty and Faith

On Occasion of the Islamic Protest
Against Caricatures of Mohammed


From: Christ in der Gegenwart, 2006/8, P. 61 f
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


Who would some years ago have considered it as possible yet, that some qualitatively most doubtful caricatures of Mohammed could trigger world-wide political turbulences that can only be controlled with difficulty. Many thousand Muslims go on the streets, embassies are burning ... The "fight of the cultures" (Samuel P. Huntington) seems to have emigrated finally from the book covers onto the street. Whether the real fight of the cultures will follow now the effective mis en scène on the roads by the media is undecided yet. Also fictions are real. They mould the perception and thus history.

From a western viewpoint one may consider the cause of the turmoil as petty. But fact is that in the Islamic world many people feel so hurt in their religious feelings, that they cannot be checked by their religious leaders any longer. A felt blasphemy of God or a felt disparaging treatment of the Prophet set the teeth of faithful Muslims on edge. The caricatures, published first in the Danish newspaper "Jyllands Posten", are judged as indicator of the religious shamelessness of the west and of its impiety. The line of the conflict does not run between Islam and Christianity, but between a religion to which certain things are holy, and a society which allegedly drifted into decadence, and to which nothing is any longer holy, not even the religious feelings of other cultures.


Do Humans Die When God Dies?

The glowing core of the turmoil is a deeply rooted religiosity. Much speaks for the fact that the massive indignation is politically controlled by extremist circles. Preachers of hatred instigate human beings, above all young persons. But the genuine religious dimension of the phenomenon may not be ignored. For many Muslims religion is holy earnest. While one here got long since accustomed to the fact that religion too has to expose itself to satire, and that freedom of opinion and of art are unlimited, there is in Islamic countries a holy shyness in religious matters. Allah, the One, and his Prophet are in the view of faithful Muslims taboo.

The first hesitant, in the meantime however clear and vehement counteraction of the west to the indignation of Muslim circles can certainly also not surprise. Freedom of the press, of art and opinion are not negotiable in societies that are due to the European Enlightenment processes. Only because something calls itself religion, it will not escape for a long time yet the purgatory of a critical and possibly also satirical enlightenment. Blasphemy as such is in these parts no longer under criminal persecution. The matter becomes only critical, if thereby rights of privacy are hurt, or public peace is substantially disturbed. First however the principle of freedom of opinion is valid.

Not only the Christian inheritance belongs to the roots of Europe, but also the remembrance of the energies that can be generated by satire, when people want to free themselves from the patronizing of arbitrary authorities. To Europe's inheritance also the memory belongs, what it means to have to live under totalitarianism, and thus to be without freedom of opinion and of the press. The absence of that liberty opens the abyss of barbarism. Only there where free speech prevails, the principle of the inalienability of human rights has a chance.

With this definiteness, to allow everybody the free use of his/her reason, Europe went for the time being a special way. Whether it did harm to the crucial cultural European moulding force Christianity, and to Europe at all, is not decided yet. But one may not underestimate the dilemma of a society that must at least exist without a common religious foundation (which so never existed anyhow). In view of a good many excesses of a world that understands itself as godless, the supposition launched by Johann Baptist Metz seems to prove true: first dies God then man - because with God's death also the historically emerging awareness of man's dignity will lose its influence. The concern is completely legitimate, that a society develops wrongly, egoistically and possibly despises mankind, if it settles itself exclusively in secularism. The question arises, to what extent we are moved by the memory of a God who fights for justice and fascinates human beings for this struggle.


How Voltaire Changed Theology

But in principle applies: Despite that risk nobody can seriously want to go back behind the win of liberty in modern times. That includes the freedom of opinion and art. That has to be accepted in this country also by people who then feel hurt in their religious feelings when Jesus or Our Lady - in contrast to some handed down pictures - are represented for instance in films very sensuous or even permissive. Either art is free or it is not free. Either faith stands the test and opens into an open dialogue, or it closes the bulkheads and refuses to have to do with this world. Finally one has even to say that satire did no harm to Christian faith at all. The recovery of the Biblical inheritance, which had been buried for a long time in church history, is anyhow partially due also to those proceedings that closely scrutinized religious traditions with enlightened mockery and biting satire. Whether intended or unintentionally - Voltaire too became a theological teacher. After his mockery about a theology that wanted to recognize God's good will in everything, even in the worst misery yet, theology became a different science. By satirical enlightenment was provoked a clarifying potential of the Jewish-Christian faith that now led back into the Biblical Hiob traditions. But is a Voltaire imaginable in societies which are moulded by Islam?

Well, he is thinkable, and there have also been in the last years time and again such cases of Islamic taboo break. Salman Rushdie is the most well-known example. But therefore he is pursued and threatened. The reason for that lies in the different relation of religion and society, faith and liberty in the Islamic culture area. In European societies faith (which is not only folklore) requires always also the clarifying effort of the concept, and it has to face criticism. Many Islamic religious leaders reject this way. Islam does also not want the separation from religion and state. The secularization of the world, which opened in Europe areas of freedom, is e.g. for Arab cultures - at least up till now - no alternative. That lets understand why the caricatures could lead there to this outbreak of violence. The fact that true faith exists only under the condition of freedom of religion, of conscience and of opinion, seems to be not accepted by many pious Muslims. If this attitude mixes with the felt hegemony of the west, then an explosive mixture develops. Many Muslims see their world only as plaything of the west. Petroleum is holy for it - so holy that also military land conquest becomes possible. Whether this view is one-sided does not interest Muslims. It is felt just in such a way, and that is sufficient to let the emotions brim over.


This Has To Be Learned By Islamic Societies

From the European point of view hollow compromises do not help. Even if some people apologize now for the publication of the caricatures, no wrong impression may develop. Journalists and political representatives can apologize for the fact that religious feelings were hurt. But not at any price the right of free expression of opinion may be jeopardized. Those who give in here do not only say good-bye to the democratic rules, but also to the obligation to a common human dignity, on which likewise the freedom of art and of the press are based. The Islamic societies are to accept this resoluteness for liberty.



They are even to learn to accept that others interfere for the sake of human rights in allegedly internal affairs. If one does not want to submit to cultural relativism, then the regard to human dignity is to be demanded universally. One cannot support in this country the equal status of man and woman, but generously dispense oneself of it anywhere else. One cannot tolerate forced marriages, or - from a mixture of religious-cultural reasons - tacitly accept the circumcision of girls. If the mentioned things should be only erroneous trends of Islam, they can be corrected by it from inside.

Since the obligation to human dignity is absolute, and is the most sacred thing of a democratically legitimized constitutional state that has bound itself to the ethos of human rights, there can be - from the western point of view - not any deviation from the way chosen by Europe. That means in catchwords: strict separation of state and religion with nevertheless quite necessary co-operation, unreserved acknowledgment of the individual civil rights, connected with it also the embodiment of freedom of religion in the inalienable dignity of each human person, freedom of expression of opinion and by it also freedom of art. Europe went this way laboriously enough - finally however always decidedly. Certainly, no holy light is poised over this Europe. Incredible excesses of violence scar its way. But now history had once - already before Enlightenment - taught that no state is to be made with religion. Anyhow, not as long as religion does not enlighten itself about itself, and does not bind liberty to truth. From this does by no means follow the relativizing of truth. But the insight has to be taken seriously that insight into truth is bound to liberty. Also in the matter of religion.

Whether Islamic societies want to go this European way at all, and whether they are - due to their own understanding of religion - also able to go it, is completely uncertain. Just that is the actual problem. The "fight of cultures" - weighty reasons suggests to drop the term, since it militarizes indeed our awareness - is not an argument between religions. Anyhow, it may not be led in this (warlike) way. But it has to be led as an argument about the question which role religion may play in a society, in the state and in the living together of states. It will remain difficult, if Islam wants to be not "only" a religion, not "only" a comprehensive interpretation of the cosmos for individuals, but to determine the whole life of a society or of a state.

This conflict can durably only be defused, if Europe's special way that is critically watched time and again, becomes the model of interreligious communication. Perhaps the claim to truth made by any religion to the individual person will in the (near) future democratize all fatal amalgams of religion and state, out of the insight that the insight into the truth of faith is bound to the free use of reason. Why should the way gone by the European societies not also interest different societies, among them Islamic ones - just from religious reasons?

A religious faith wins kindness by its humanitarian strength or it is wrong. In any case, seen from a Christian point of view, the Christian faith could again give an example: by exposing itself to a different reality, even if this reality is disturbing, and by bringing this reality into its churches. True holiness does not only bear that but will prove thereby its whole significance. Perhaps just this will some day fascinate members of other religions - much more than we momentarily mean.


Link to 'Public Con-Spiracy for-with-of the Poor'